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  • Ceaseless Currents of Change: A Journey Around the Indian Ocean Littorals
  • Bartholomew Thanhauser (bio)
Robert D. Kaplan, Monsoon: The Indian Ocean and the Future of American Power, New York, Random House, 2010, 400pp.

In 1992, Robert D. Kaplan had just finished writing his third book, Balkan Ghosts. His previous two books had not sold well, and the prospects for Balkan Ghosts did not look much better. Kaplan submitted the book to various editors, all of whom rejected it. Finally, in 1993, the book was published. Like previous books, initial sales of Balkan Ghosts were dismal.

But unlike his previous two books, the timing of this publication was fortuitous. The Yugoslav Wars were becoming increasingly bloody and American media coverage of the conflict was picking up steam. Amidst debate over whether the United States should intervene, President Clinton was seen toting Kaplan’s book under his arm. Soon, book sales, and with them Kaplan’s career, skyrocketed.

Since that time, Kaplan has published a prolific amount of work. Over the past dozen years, he has written eight books and worked across academia, government, and media. This past year, while serving as a fellow at the Center for New American Security and writing as a national correspondent for The Atlantic and Stratfor, Kaplan published his newest book, The Revenge of Geography. A drier, slower-paced read than some of his previous books, The Revenge of Geography considers geographic determinism and its implications for the future of American foreign policy.

Kaplan’s previous book, Monsoon, shared the timeliness that Balkan Ghosts first enjoyed. Although published three years ago, Monsoon has shown that ideas originating between book covers can shape important conversations about policy. Former [End Page 147] Senior Director for Strategic Planning at the National Security Council, Derek Chollet, has described Monsoon as having “affected thinking across the Obama administration,”1 and a New York Times profile of General Martin Dempsey prior to his appointment as Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff mentioned that Monsoon was one of his most recent reads.2 More broadly, amidst the United States’ well-publicized “pivot” to Asia, Kaplan’s description of a “two-ocean” (Indian and Pacific Ocean) future for U.S. foreign policy is apt.

And yet, like Balkan Ghosts, Monsoon does not seem to have been written with the goal of influencing policy. It is much more a travelogue than a policy prescription, more Bill Bryson than Robert Kagan (albeit without the humor). Traveling throughout what Kaplan terms “the Greater Indian Ocean”—the region stretching roughly from Oman to Aceh—Kaplan does not build one overarching thesis, but rather, offers kernels of deft commentary and mini history lessons on the countries he visits.

Perhaps as a result of this style, Kaplan’s writing is far from linear. Travelling from country to country along the Indian Ocean littorals, Kaplan bounces among a diversity of subjects ranging from architecture to naval policy. With this eclectic mix and the engaging casualness of his writing, Monsoon ultimately makes for a fun and accessible read.

Kaplan begins his writings in Oman, a country that was historically at the nexus of trade in the Indian Ocean—a launching point from which Arab traders, sailing on monsoonal winds, could reach the coasts of Sumatra in just seventy days. Contrasting that past with the present, he describes Oman today as a country stuck between desert and sea, and analogizes these two environments to the forces of insularity and openness between which modern Oman grapples.

Moving eastward to the Makran Coast, Kaplan travels to the Pakistani provinces of Baluchistan and Sindh. There, he imagines a future where the sleepy fishing villages along the Coast are transformed into major ports from which Central Asian oil and gas are shipped. His vision is exciting, but it is one that Kaplan does not articulate beyond some superficial musing. Moving yet further east, across the border to India, Kaplan argues that the province of Gujarat is a microcosm for the potentials of economic growth and pitfalls of Hindu nationalism that India faces.

Traveling to Bangladesh, Kaplan focuses inward, looking at the resiliency and creativity with which non-governmental organizations in the country have met increasingly severe...


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pp. 147-150
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